Original Airdate: April 29th, 2006 on The WB
This special was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the staggeringly popular Pokemon franchise, which means that this year was the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and that I am therefore as old as the stars and the seas. If you don’t know what Pokemon is, I’m guessing there are no children with you underneath your rock, because Pikachu and company have been delighting kids across a smorgasbord of media platforms for two decades now. It all started with a handheld video game that’s gone on to enjoy six direct sequels. There’s also the TV show. Did you know you can watch 930 episodes of the TV show? It’s been running continuously since 1997 and Ash is still going through puberty. There are also 19 movies, and I’m talking feature films, not the “very special episode” crap we have the misfortune of examining tonight. The trading card game you might remember from elementary school? Still totally a thing. There’s enough tie-in merchandise to make a robust and healthy garbage island. And if you’ve been watching your hysterical and reactionary local news, you’ve probably heard about how a certain mobile game is leading us all to fiery doom at the hands of pedophiles and vandals. Most adults are probably exclusively familiar with the video game and haven’t watched the TV show since 5th grade. How has it held up? Well…
- Great concept. There’s a reason the Pokemon franchise is such a big hit. It’s intrinsically interesting to imagine a world crawling with hundreds of unique semi-intelligent life forms with magical fighting powers. Sure, here in the real world we just found out that there are four species of giraffe that we hadn’t realized existed, and that’s legitimately thrilling, but what if there was a giraffe that had a separate brain in its ass, complete with a mouth full of teeth ready to bite your damn hand off? And what if you could capture that giraffe and make it fight your enemies with searing blasts of psychic energy? Personally, I love it when fantasy is closely wedded to the real world, and while the world of Pokemon seems to have armies of clone nurses and a robust and nonsensical economy, the world inhabited by trainer Ash Ketchum (Kayzie Rogers) and his retinue of hangers-on is modern, technologically sophisticated and ostensibly realistic, allowing fantasies and projection to take root faster than a hungry Tangela.
- Strong choice of medium. And really, in some ways, Pokemon makes a lot more sense on TV than in a video game. The fundamentally magical premise becomes hidebound by stats, type effectiveness, movesets and endless grinding when it takes the form of a game, but the creators of the show cheerfully fly in the face of established rules about type or how strong/useful any given move is when it makes for good spectacle. This might infuriate the turbonerds out there, but this kind of poetic license can go a long way in making a fight that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion fascinating.
- Cute. They might keep you in your seat with flights of fancy about riding a flaming horse into the sunset, but chances are they lured you in with a button-eyed talking mouse, or a kitty, or a puppy, or a…balloon, I guess? Hell, these people even managed to make a literal pile of toxic sludge cute. Also, a bag of garbage. Those people at Nintendo know what they’re doing when it comes to luring you in with candy-coated adorability.
- Sci-fi horror premise. Okay, now that we’ve gotten generalities out of the way, let’s stick those brass tacks into our eyes. At first it seems like we might be in for something cool: Ash and all his friends are lured to the compound of one Dr. Yung (Bill Timoney, Mission to Mars,) who has used only the most cutting-edge developments in pokemon mad science to create “mirage” pokemon, which he replicates instead of catching in the wild. They’re strong against things that would normally knock them out and eventually he harnesses the power to let them use any move they want. They’re super-powerful and they can’t be stopped. Professor Oak (Jimmy Zoppi) is quickly captured and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. The show does take on themes of science vs. nature with all the subtlety of Joe Eszterhas and Misty (Michele Knotz) nearly plummets to her death, but all of the cool pulpy things they could do with this premise quickly fall by the wayside as we descend into the worst episode of Pokemon I’ve had the displeasure of seeing, and it’s not like it was Masterpiece Theatre to begin with.
- Jarring change in voice actors. This special is most infamous for the fact that the production company somehow decided they weren’t making enough money on this hugely popular series and sacked all the principal voice actors. Which is a shame, because the original cast was very strong. Comedic stylings centered around Team Rocket’s high school drama club antics and Brock (Bill Rogers) being a pussy hound have always been weak sauce, but at least the original cast could sell it. The backlash against the voice acting was so intense that the dialogue was re-recorded for the DVD release and Kayzie Rogers was straight-up replaced, which makes sense, because while Ash was always voiced by a middle-aged woman impersonating a gravelly voiced preteen boy, Kayzie Rogers’ voice is slightly higher-pitched, which makes it seem like Ash has Benjamin Button disease. It probably didn’t help that Rogers is also the voice of Max, an eight-year-old.
- Team Rocket. Speaking of Team Rocket, why the fuck are they even here? It’s great evidence of the show’s tendency to cling to its formula even when it doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of previous episodes that didn’t need a conflict with dastardly villains had Team Rocket inserted sideways on the theory that an antagonist is always essential, but there’s already a clear and obvious antagonist here: the mad scientist with the super-powerful, weaponized monsters. The Rockets ultimately end up just bearing witness to the proceedings while offering witlessly snide commentary and the occasional interjection from Wobbuffet. Don’t worry, Wobbuffet’s voice actor didn’t change. (It had always been Kayzie Rogers.)
- Filling time. Here we have another case study in a 22-minute children’s program airing a “special” where proceedings are dragged out to an hour. With a plot this cliched, the last thing the writers need is more run-time to fill, but still we endure an interlude where Yung captures Ash’s Pikachu and tortures it in order to get information. Aghast, Professor Oak agrees to reveal the information peacefully. Why not just skip a step and torture Professor Oak? Oh, that’s too far? But it’s okay to torture animals in a cartoon for kids? I mean, they’re essentially cockfighting in the first place, so I guess we’ve already lost our innocence in that regard.
- Predictable. Believe it or not, they go through this whole pretense where Dr. Yung has also been kidnapped by the nefarious Mirage Master, but it turns out he was REALLY DR. YUNG ALL ALONG! Of course he was. What would be the point of having two mirage experts, one of which only exists to wear a turtleneck badly and get captured? How else would he have been able to master the complicated mirage technology instantly? Why else would the compound have been equipped with mirage generating missiles, allowing the mirage pokemon to pursue our heroes outside of the compound? God, I can feel myself getting less cool with each word I write. But this whole charade also reveals a critical plot hole: after the dramatic revelation of the Mirage Master’s double identity, Oak blusters that it all makes perfect sense, given the fact that Yung was pushed out of the Pokemon Institute for unethical research practices. Oh, you didn’t think to mention that fun fact back when he invited you and a bunch of children to his mysterious lab facility?
- Maudlin & hamfisted. The worst thing of all about this episode is that the thing that finally defeats Yung’s mirage pokemon is an intervention from floating cat fetus Mew, whose power is hastily explained as coming from the fact that he represents a merger between data and a “true soul.” You see, he didn’t meet Yung’s exacting requirements as a research subject and was left to dejectedly hang around the facility and suffer the occasional torrent of verbal abuse. Of course, the true-hearted Professor Oak recognized Mew’s inherent worth, and Ash nobly forced himself through a barrier of pure energy to save it from imprisonment, and the initially helpless and pathetic-seeming pokemon was really a big hero in the end. The exertion of fighting Yung’s powerful Mewtwo caused Mew to disintegrate, but we’ll “see him again someday.” None of this makes any goddamned sense at all, but it appeals to that same part of your brain that made you coo over Pikachu in the first place, assuming that cat fetuses are your thing.
Final Judgment: 1/10. Look, despite how it may seem, I don’t hate the Pokemon TV series. This was just an unusually bad episode, but it’s not really surprising that after ten years, everything starts to look a little threadbare, considering that the show was never high art to begin with.
NEXT TIME: I was going to review The Bachelor, but I thought I’d go for something a bit more intellectually stimulating, so Scooby-Doo it is.